Acquisitions Are Strangling Fitness Tracker Innovation

The acquisition of Withings by Nokia for $191 million is just the latest in a string of fitness companies being taken over by larger concerns. To date, Intel purchased Basis, Fossil acquired Misfit, Adidas picked up Runtastic, Asics scooped up Runkeeper, and Under Armour acquired MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and Endomondo.

You would think it's a good thing that these small companies now get the resources of larger corporations to really spread their wings. But the sad reality is that, since being acquired, there's been little to no innovation from any of them.

While it's made incremental improvements to its tracker, the Peak, Basis hasn't debuted any new hardware in two years. Under Armour's HealthBox didn't offer anything I hadn't already seen from other fitness trackers. The lone bright spot came in the UA Gemini 2 Record running sneakers, which essentially offer a tracker built into the shoes.

MORE: Best Fitness Trackers 2016

This is the same problem when Microsoft acquired Nokia's phone division. Microsoft simply didn't know what to do with the asset, and squandered a great brand in the process. Google looks like it's doing the same thing to Nest. (Both speak to a larger problem about merging two different corporate cultures, but that's a column for another day.)

In general, it feels like the fitness-tracker category, like that of smartwatches, is already running out of ideas. Android Wear, now in its third year, still hasn't resolved some of its fundamental problems, such as the fire hose of notifications. Each new smartwatch — of which it seems like there are fewer and fewer — is merely a shinier case wrapped around the same, tired operating system.

It's hard to believe that the fitness tracker market has reached maturity after just four years, but it definitely feels like it's stagnated. Then again, what's their incentive to innovate? Fitbit's two newest trackers, the Blaze and the Alta, offer little in the way of new features (the Blaze does have FitStar workouts, which is cool). But Fitbit shipped more than 1 million units of each tracker in the first month of availability.

Of all the wearable-device makers, Garmin is the only company that seems to be smartly iterating on its products. I just started testing the $249 vivoactive HR, which not only incorporates various activity tracking (and accurate heart rate monitoring) tools, but also has some smartwatch-like functionality: It delivers notifications from your smartphone, and you can customize its interface with various widgets, such as additional watch faces and third-party apps.

Is the future of wearables a combination smartwatch and fitness tracker? For some, perhaps. There's never going to be a one-size-fits-all device, because even the most casual exerciser isn't going to wear a smartwatch with a metal or leather band when he or she goes for a run. Meanwhile, dedicated athletes won't be satisfied with sub-$100 fitness trackers that lack GPS and heart rate monitors. But do companies feel too constrained by those tiers to try something different? If so, then they're doomed to failure.

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